From Rust Belt to Breadbasket

Taking a drive from the rural outskirts of Youngstown down State Route 224 to Canton, Ohio is in many ways akin to taking a trip back through time. At one point, before the interstate highway program, US 224 was an important route for truckers. Small towns thrived along its edges, along with farms both large and small. The construction of the expressway ultimately diverted much of the economic lifeblood of 224. And though much has been said about the subsequent decline of the small communities on the route, much less talked about is the disappearance of the farms. Vast stretches of fallow farmland are a common sight, not just around 224, but also around cities and towns of all varieties in Ohio and Michigan. However, that’s likely to change—as is the position of these two declining states. The exodus from the Great Lakes region, so lamented by many, will quite possibly reverse itself in the coming decades. It won’t be smart shrinkage, tech belts, or tax incentives that will arrest the region’s decline, but the most basic element of life itself: water.

In his monumental study of the most underappreciated resource on earth, investigative journalist Charles Fishman paints a picture of the price we will pay for our having taken water for granted: “We are entering a new age of water scarcity—not just in traditionally dry or hard-pressed places like the U.S. Southwest and the Middle East, but in places we think of as water wealthy, like Atlanta and Melbourne. The three things we have taken to be the natural state of our water supply—abundant, cheap, and safe—will not be present together in the decades ahead.” This will hold especially true for the fastest growing regions of the United States.

California’s Central Valley today is perhaps the most agriculturally important region in the country. Four out of the top five counties in total agricultural sales are in the valley. A good portion of America relies on produce grown in and then shipped from California. The Central Valley however faces a growing number of problems that threaten its future as an agricultural mainstay. Increasing sprawl and population growth in Northern California is now moving into the San Joaquin Valley, threatening water supplies in an area already suffering from problems linked to increased salinity. If salinity rates continue on their present course for the next sixteen years, California will start to lose billions of dollars a year in revenue. Combine that with an estimated 131 percent increase in population in the San Joaquin Valley by mid-century, and you have an enormous threat to one quarter of the nation’s domestic food supply.

States in the American West and Southwest exist as they do today by the grace of two things: the Bureau of Land management and irrigation. A monumental governmental effort made the semi-arid and desert regions of the country habitable. However, the habitability of these regions rests on the shakiest of foundations. As Mark Reisner, who in 1986 authored perhaps the most important book on water and the American West, put it “…this water, which has turned the western plains and large portions of California green, will be mostly gone in one hundred years.” In Las Vegas alone, nearly 60,000 residents arrive annually, which necessitates an extra 100 million gallons of water per week.

One of the most important rivers in America is also under siege after decades of mismanagement. The ever-threatened Colorado River is a ticking time bomb for Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Wyoming. Damns, diversions, aqueducts, and climate change have taken a heavy toll on a waterway that supports around 36 million people. Increased salinity is also destroying the river. With continued population growth and development in areas supported by the Colorado, the future of the river as a viable water source is questionable.

The disappearance of surface water sources like Lake Mead and the Colorado River aren’t the only major concerns for states. Water tables across America, many of them formed hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, are being over-pumped to compensate for out of control population growth and droughts linked to climate change. One of the most crucial of these is the Ogallala Aquifer. South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas all rely on the Ogallala. Irrigated agriculture has long been a mainstay in these states, especially in Kansas, often known as the “Breadbasket of the World.” If drastic steps are not taken to reduce pumping of the Ogallala, it’s estimated that 70 percent of the aquifer will be gone just past mid-century. And in Texas, fracking-related industries are trying to acquire water resources even as municipal water levels plummet.

What is actually being described is what Lester Brown of the Earth Policy calls “peak water.” From now on, water supply will be outstripped by demand. Already states like Georgia and Florida are fighting over access to dwindling water supplies. But this is not the case for the Great Lakes region, home to nearly one-fifth of the planet’s surface freshwater supply. The region is now seeking to capitalize on the situation by creating something called the “Blue Economy.” Michigan has already been benefiting from increased tourism, especially fishing, in its abundant lakes and streams. Fishing alone is worth $2.5 billion a year for the state, wildlife-related tourism accounts for another $2 billion, and the boating industry in Michigan, sure to grow, supports thousands of

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Businesses and universities throughout the region are financing start-ups and water-related services. Milwaukee has already invested almost $100 million to attract and grow water-intensive businesses and industries. The Milwaukee Water Council is at the forefront of much of this type of work. This year they are opening the Global Water Center for research related to Blue Economy initiatives.

A green economy is gradually growing in the region as well. Already, fallow farmland is being revived across Michigan and now in the Buckeye State. Ohio and other states in the Great Lakes region won’t just be providing food domestically either. China, with a fast-growing population, a lack of arable farmland, and increasing desertification, is eyeing agricult
ural imports from the United States. China lacks the corn and feedstock necessary to nourish the cattle it’s growing for the country’s rapidly expanding meat-eating population. Former Ohio State agricultural economist Dr. Allan Lines sees Ohio in a position to take advantage of China’s issues with groundwater and arable land. Export markets to China could provide a huge boon for the state, especially as other agricultural centers in America face growing water problems.

The decline of one other scarce resource will eventually even bring back the struggling cities clinging to the banks of the Great Lakes. As we are facing peak water, so are we facing peak oil. When gasoline prices eventually rise to the $16 a gallon range, America’s system of growing food far from markets will be over; an economic model dependant on over-the-road shipping will collapse. The end of cheap gas will also mean the revitalization of urban areas, as density again becomes desirable—indeed, necessary. In his book $20 Per Gallon, civil engineer Christopher Steiner outlines how the end of cheap oil will revitalize cities everywhere, but he states that especially “cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, will see their stocks rise the fastest.” The end of cheap oil will itself end the moniker “Rust Belt,” as production and manufacturing again become localized.

The Great Lakes region has come to represent failure in the eyes of many over the past fifty years, but it could easily come to represent revitalization over the next half-century. The Sun Belt’s pressing water problems, and eventually the world’s pressing oil problems, will turn the pendulum back to this region, remaking it in new and unexpected ways. In the meantime, careful stewardship of the lakes, restoration projects, and a skeptical look at natural gas drilling will be necessary—for this region holds something much, much more important than shale gas: water. It might just be the last best hope to turn the Rust Belt green and blue.

Sean Posey

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